Monday 1 January 2018

A Gloster Double 31st December 2017

The last day of the year dawned dark and drear. The fag end of a dreadful twelve months worldwide with seemingly endless wars and conflicts, a racist, sexist, pathetic braggart and bully running the most powerful country in the world whilst Britain is stuck with a compassionless wicked witch with a face that would curdle milk, busily ruining this country rather than face up to the lying, and shameless egotists that comprise her Government.

I was clearly suffering from a bad case of PCBS (Post Christmas Blues Syndrome) and needed cheering up badly. I knew the cure for me was to get out and do some birding, so 9.30am found me collecting Moth from his home in Eynsham to make an hour's drive to Gloucestershire to go and see a very co-operative Great Northern Diver near Sharpness Docks by the River Severn and then we would follow this up with another crack at the female Penduline Tit that was nearby at Plock Court Water Meadow, Longford. For a day at least all my troubles and concerns about the world I live in would be banished.

Although it was initially raining as we descended from the Cotswold escarpment, the sky was clearing in the west and though the sun never quite managed an appearance the sky lightened and the rain ceased as we neared our destination. Turning off the Motorway we followed the signs for Sharpness Docks. Fortunately I had been given detailed directions by Mike King of Gloster Birder fame (see here) and following his meticulous directions we found ourselves driving around the perimeter of the docks, today a silent and deserted industrial area that had clearly seen better days but still, apparently, functioning as a working dock. Despite Mike's directions we still required one final bit of assistance which came courtesy of a friendly gent walking a large Alsatian dog and then we were parking the car just below the Docker's Social Club in an area of rain filled craters that passed for a car park of sorts. We donned wellies and warm clothing and headed off with cameras and bins along a cinder track that led towards the Severn Estuary and the SARA (Severn Area Rescue Association) pool which was one of the favourite places of the Great Northern Diver.

The diver, according to earlier reports, also liked other adjacent areas to the SARA pool such as the small marina and the Sharpness canal itself, both leading off from the SARA pool. There had been no report about the diver this morning and the last report of it yesterday was from the SARA pool so we thought it best to try there first.

As we descended the track we were on a hill of sorts with the huge river estuary some fifty or so feet below us to our left and the SARA pool to our right and at a slightly lower elevation to us, with the SARA Life Boat Station overlooking both the pool and the estuary. As we walked down to the level of the pool I could see, through the trees, silhouetted on the grey waters of the pool, the distinctive profile of a Great Northern Diver, so now we could relax as we did not need to worry about searching for it in the canal or marina

Moth on the track by the SARA pool with the Lifeboat Station
in the background and the Severn Estuary just beyond the wall

The SARA pool looking over to the far wooded bank where
there is no access

The SARA pool looking down towards the Marina and the
Sharpness canal

The SARA Lifeboat Station
The diver was remarkably confiding as you can see from the images below. It was feeding and moving around the pool on a leisurely circuit and by positioning ourselves strategically at various points on the track running around one side of the pool we tried to anticipate where the diver would next  surface. This worked out quite well and on a few occasions it surfaced within literally feet of us and showed no real alarm as it regarded us through its claret red eyes.

Juvenile Great Northern Diver
The diver was a juvenile, as evidenced by the pale fringes to the feathers of its back forming a scaly pattern of grey semi circles across its upperparts. Great Northern Divers are large birds and although their movements are ponderous compared to the more rapid movements of smaller birds there is still a casual grace to their actions, none more so than when they slide like silk below the water. You cannot call it a dive as there is no initial leap, like a Cormorant, to give it impetus as it submerges  or using wings to pull it down below the surface as with Guillemots and Razorbills, but just a supreme languid slide of incomparable and effortless grace below the water, causing scarcely a ripple.

We followed the diver around as it circuited the pool via a series of dives, progressing first to one end and then to the other. We hid behind a large red lifebuoy by the pool's edge but really it was not necessary as the diver did not seem to bother about us or any of the other occasional birders and people out for a Sunday morning  stroll. Even the dreaded dogs did not cause it concern.

I think my enthusiasm was beginning to worry Moth as I kept urging him to follow me to where I next anticipated the diver would surface after a dive. If I was honest we could have just stood in one spot and waited for the diver to come to us as it slowly circuited the pool but adrenalin and excitement can sometimes be difficult to curb.

Eventually we all ended up at one end of the pool and the diver co-operated beautifully and we got fantastic close up views of the bird. To be within just a few feet of such a bird was a unique experience for me and I made the most of it. There was much to admire. Its enormous steel coloured bill was truly impressive, carried on a large head with a curious ridged bump at the top of its forehead. We could see just how far back on its body its legs were placed allowing it to propel itself so effortlessly through and under the water. Often it sunk its body low in the water allowing the water to wash over where its neck joined its body. Perfectly adapted to its environment it was as if it was one with the water on which it will spend virtually its entire life.

The weather remained stubbornly dull, that kind of a day where you lose all track of time as the weather gives no clue as to what part of the day you are in. We glanced over the wall behind us, down and across to a huge expanse of mud exposed by the falling tide. It looked desolate, bleak and cold down there as gulls, mainly Black headed, clustered on a distant sand bar and part of a tree cartwheeled end on end in the outgoing river current.

The time was approaching noon and we turned to head back up the track to the car as we now had our sights set on the Penduline Tit at Longworth. This required a thirty minute journey back down the Motorway to the other side of Gloucester which was achieved easily enough but only to find that the car park gate for Plock Court Meadow was firmly shut necessitating us to park in the nearby residential road.

This was not a major problem and with the car safely parked we walked out across a very wet and soggy grass meadow to the three small, shallow ponds each with its complement of Great Reedmace or bulrushes as it is more commonly known, that comprise Plock Court Wetlands.

Plock Court Wetlands showing the three ponds
There was no one else here apart from a couple who told us they had arrived ten minutes before us.The lady was wielding a large lens and said she thought she had already seen the Penduline Tit and taken its photo but was not certain. I asked to have a look and she showed me a male European Stonechat! Presumably it was the same one as was here on my previous visit.

With only ourselves and the other couple present it was obvious that we would have to go looking for the tit. We checked the first of the ponds and the second but failed to find anything apart from the male stonechat and a couple of Long tailed Tits, which flew over to the third pond. We walked over to this pond and flushed the two Long tailed Tits from the bulrushes but also a smaller, paler bird with a rich chestnut back and peachy underparts, that flew to and perched in a small bush of wild rose, all bare twigs, thorns and red haws.

Female Penduline Tit
The tiny bird was the Penduline Tit and almost in unison we exclaimed 'That's it!' The Penduline Tit remained perched for a minute or two and I waved to the couple who were on the other side of the pond, silently indicating that we had found it. By the time they got to us the tit had, unfortunately, flown off. Moth thought it might have dropped into the reedmace again but after standing around for at least forty five minutes, looking wistfully at the bulrushes, there was no sign of it. Somewhat despondent we stood motionless as the sky darkened and a rain squall lashed at us, carried on a strong southwest wind. It was not pleasant but fifteen minutes later the rain abated. However there was still no sign of the tit. By now a few other birders had joined us but they brought no change of fortune. A Sparrowhawk flew over and some Meadow Pipits in the wet grass peep peeped in alarm.

We split up and wandered round, checking each separate pond but not really believing we would find the tit and then, as is often the way, the most unlikely person found it. The lady who had mistaken the stonechat for the tit discovered it, perched close by in the straggly unkempt hedgerow separating the wetlands from the busy road on the other side.

This was our opportunity to get reasonably close to it and in one person's case, who had recently arrived, too close but what can you do or say. The tit was obviously unsettled by all the attention and flew along the hedgerow from place to place. It clearly wanted to come back to the bulrushes to feed but the attention it was getting dissuaded it until, at last, it flew high from the hedge, over our heads and dropped into the bulrushes in the pond where we had first found it. Or so we thought.

Another forty minutes passed as we surveyed the bulrushes for movement but there was no sign. We were happy with what we had seen so I suggested to Moth that before we departed we walk just one more time past the other two ponds, just in case the bird had given us the slip again. We saw nothing until at the last and smallest pond Moth saw the Penduline Tit clinging to a bulrush head in the classic pose so familiar from photographs. It appeared so tiny and its brown upperparts beautifully camouflaged it against the brown velvety bulrush head as it busily probed through the seeds to find the grubs within.

We watched it feeding on the bulrush head for a few minutes before it dropped down into the tangle of dead leaves and stalks below. Here it was much more obscured as it hopped about, alternately appearing and disappearing in the broken stems and the bent and brittle leaves. We watched for a good ten minutes before it flew onwards to the middle pond and disappeared into yet more bulrushes.

It had been good while it lasted and well worth the wait but now we both agreed it really was time to go.

1 comment:

  1. It's all true - I'm tempted to say especially the opening paragraph.... Actually, I enjoyed the moving to & fro trying to predict the GND's next surfacing point! Thanks again for a great way to round off what's been a rather strange year's birding for me!!!